If nothing else, COVID-19 may have us falling in love all over again with our vehicles.
For years, automotive experts have been predicting a shift away from private vehicle ownership, saying shared autonomous vehicles were where the industry was headed. Especially in metropolitan areas where public transportation was more abundant, the concept seemed likely, and the rise of ride sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft seemed to underscore that prediction.
Then COVID-19 swept across the country and uprooted normalcy. When that happened, Americans turned to their safe spaces.
"The vehicle, in many ways, has become our own private bubble," Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Cox Automotive, said during an Aug. 5 webinar that was part of the Center for Automotive Research's annual Management Briefing Seminars.
Vehicles became the place where Americans could share experiences instead of rides. High school graduations were done in drive-thru fashion with graduates handed their diplomas through the passenger-side windows. Car parades with honking horns and homemade signs replaced the traditional ice-cream-and-cake birthday party. Churches held Easter services at drive-in movie theaters.
"There are all kinds of things," Smoke said, "that are actually more vehicle-dependent in ways many of us could have never imagined."
While it is unlikely that America's infatuation for these vehicle comforts will last forever, it has changed the outlook for the auto industry, at least in the short term.
Jeff Schuster, LMC Automotive's president of Americas operations and global vehicle forecasts, expects the lingering effects of the virus to impact shared vehicles more than anything else. If nothing else, he said, it will delay by about three years the development, launch and adoption of autonomous driving models—especially those that are level 4 or 5 autonomous sharing.
"It is really going to depend on what happens with this virus, the vaccine and how people behave in a post-vaccine environment," Schuster said.
In the near term, shared mobility likely will continue, just in ways that weren't anticipated.
Pointing to the recent successes of delivery services such as Grubhub, Door Dash and Uber Eats, Mike Wall, IHS Markit's executive director of automotive analysis, noted that Americans are embracing and using shared vehicles; we're just not moving people.
"We are moving goods, we're moving foods," Wall said. "It is amazing to see how we evolve. So, I wouldn't write off the concept of that type mobility, but I do think it is going to evolve. And I think we are seeing it evolve."
Reviving auto sales
The American automotive industry is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. As the industry and its consumers try to get their bearings, they're forced to navigate additional political and social circumstances.
"We had been seeing improving customer sentiment until we got to Memorial Day weekend," Smoke said.
That was when COVID-19 cases began rising again in the U.S., and it marked the start of countrywide protests following the death of George Floyd.
Unfortunately, Smoke said, the road ahead doesn't seem any less challenging.
"Americans are really challenged by the situation with schools (reopening) and that is influencing attitudes about the fall," Smoke said. "Plus, we are 13 weeks away from the most polarized presidential election that most of us have experienced in our lifetimes."